Reprinted from the 1984 edition of the Tufts University undergraduate literary journal Omnibus (volume 7, number 1).
By Christopher Arnott
Marshall McLuhan, books in print, 1967:
The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1967). Re-released in hardcover and offered for the first time as a trade paperback.
Explorations in Communication (1960). Written with E.S. Carpenter. Re-released.
The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962). Soon to be a mass market paperback.
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). A Signet paperback. Inescapable.
The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Forthcoming in 1967.
Marshall McLuhan, the book jacket blurbs brag, is “the oracle whose revolutionary ideas have blasted an explosion of debate from academy to coffeehouse.” He is “the most controversial thinker of the electronic age.”: He is 56 years old and lives in Toronto.
Marshall McLuhan, work in progress, 1967:
Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting. Eventually published in 1968.
Counterblast. Sees print in ’69.
War and Peace in the Global Village (’68).
From Cliche to Archetype (’70).
Culture is Our Business. The Mechanical Bride revisited. 1970.
His first name is really Herbert.
Herbert Marshall McLuhan.
When you hear “Herbert,” you think of Hoover.
When it’s “Marshall,” Dillon comes to mind.
And the Marshall Plan.
And Martial Law.
McLuhan gave “Herbert” the heave-ho in the mid-’50s, when he was still writing book reviews for little magazines like Renascence and Sewanee Review, and Marshalled in a new era.
THE TIMES ARE RIFE
The New York Times Magazine, 29 January 1967. A profile of McLuhan by Richard Kostelanetz.
A typical reader’s scorecard for Understanding Media might show about one-half brilliant insight; one-fourth suggestive hypotheses; one-fourth nonsense. Given the book’s purpose and originality these are hardly bad percentages. ‘If a few details here and there are wacky,’ McLuhan says, ‘it doesn’t matter a hoot.’
Marshall McLuhan has been appointed the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at Fordham University, effective in the fall of ’67. This coveted appointment carries with it a $100,000 salary.
Such a prestigious subtitle (contradicting the philosophy class cliché which asks whether the existence of a chair is of importance, by revealing that the existence of a Chair in the Humanities gets the holder a profile in The Times) makes McLuhan now more than ever a media star. But at this early point of media recognition, the good Doctor is still indentified primarily as “Canada’s talky Social Catalyst,” the moniker awarded him by Life in its Feb. 25, 1966 issue. In both Life and Time, McLuhan’s content causes little comment. His packaging does, and inspires satire.
Letters to the Editor (The Times, Sunday, Februrary 12)
“Dr. McLuhan is an ecdysigistical ipsedixitist.”
—Robert Thiers, Stratford, Conn.
The modal mechanics of McLuhan’s syntactic structures are such that ordinary declarative sentences in his style become ordinately obfuscated in a world of time and space where history is a guiding post… Come on, McLuhan—isn’t it simpler to say I think your prose impossible to read?
—G.S. Rousseau, Dept. of English, Harvard
There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.
THE NEW STATEMENT
“A Child’s Guide to McLuhanology,” by Alan Brien. The New Statesman, February 10, page 187:
I have taken a header into the choppy seas of Understanding Media without ever being taught to swim. I emerge a little groggy …. but at least I feel equipped to explain what I think he means by “The Medium is the Message.” And that puts me ahead of most of those loungers along the promenade who have been tossing his name around.
The New Statesman leads the pack in confronting McLuhan mania as it descends upon Great Britain. But as the critics try to knock him over, McLuhan writes himself:
• “Love,” in Saturday Night volume 82, number 2
• “Technology and Environment,” in Artscanada number 105
• A book review of Frances A. Yates’ “The Art of Memory” for Encounter.
Book reviews are how McLuhan established himself as a media critic. He really falls for the Yates book and quotes it often in his own upcoming articles and texts.
There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in “high definition.” A cartoon is “low definition,” simply because very little visual information is provided. On the other hand, hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience.
MARCH’S TIMES ON
…McLuhan, whose first mention in The Times this month is, amusingly enough considering his thoughts on the cool media, in the TV section (March 19th):
MARSHALL MCLUHAN, CO-AUTHOR WITH QUENTIN FIORE OF THE MEDIUM IS THE MASSAGE, WILL EXPOUND HIS THEORIES OF MODERN CULTURE TODAY AT 4 PM ON NBC EXPERIMENT IN TELEVISION.
The article lists random McLuhan platitudes. There is a photo of McLuhan, rather candid in composition. He is looking dim, smiling blankly.
PHOTO CAPTION: MARSHALL MCLUHAN—will TV have to stop covering the war in Vietnam?
The seeming non sequitur in that caption is disarmingly similar to the intentional caption/photo mismatches which McLuhan himself spreads throughout his latest book The Medium is the Massage. Massage is a collaboration with graphic artist Quentin Fiore. It is released initially as a paperback, then two weeks later in hardcover. The project is augmented by a record album and a television special.
The reviews keep McLuhan’s name in the press through the summer. Unfortunately, Massage rubs many reviewers the wrong way:
New York Times Book Review, March 26, page 6. By Marvin Kitman.
With all the zeal of a convert I would like to urge everybody not to buy this book, in either the paper medium or cloth medium. McLuhan argues forcefully that the invention of television makes books obsolete. Anybody who purchases a McLuhan book is playing into the hands of McLuhan’s enemies in the intellectual establishment; high sales figures can only tend to discredit him as a modern thinker.
Kitman, parodying the graphic style of Massage, prints paragraphs of his review backwards and upside down. In search of the best medium with which to approach McLuhan, he divulges the oracle’s office number and urges all his readers to call him.
Kitman constantly quotes Jerome Agel, the coordinator who brought Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore together for The Medium is the Massage. Agel says, with the undiluted fervor of a true disciple:
For the first time, Marshall puts his message in terms everyone can understand. He is a genius. This book makes all the other books on art and philosophy obsolete. It’s the first book designed for the TV age.
And this message demystified? McLuhan’s layered linguistics lightened for the layman? According to Agel,
the message, and why it had to get out now, is on page25. But pages 26 and 148 are very important, too.
Page 25 consists in toto of the “Inevitability” quote which closed the first section of this article. Pages 26 and 148 are equally revelatory, and reserved.
(From Life, 1966):
Once his books are written McLuhan never rereads them (“I can’t bear to”). Nor does he look at reviews of them. “Reviewers seldom do anything but register their points of view,” he says. “They misunderstand. All people tend to misunderstand each other almost totally all the time. They’re always trying to fit you into some simple category, and it seldom works.”
Meanwhile, McLuhan has become mainstream enough to be set loose in the March issue of Family Circle, where he relates “What TV is Really Doing to Your Child.”
THE HEAT IS OFF?
(April through August)
Major periodicals have been circling McLuhan rather cautiously in ’67, which is his biggest year media-wise, but is also the time when he must prove himself once and for all. To the satisfaction of the majority of his critics, he hasn’t proved (or improved) enough. Thus no profile in Harper’s. Reader’s Digest doesn’t swallow his food for thought. Time doesn’t stand still for him until his first Fordham lecture in September. Life’s style in its several pages on him in ’66 was to concentrate on the celebrity and not exploit his explorations.
Media exposure of this media exposer dims somewhat over the summer. The books still sell—several new titles are being readied—but there are only a couple of items worth mentioning before that fervently awaited first Fall at Fordham:
In the first week of September, when New York State has trouble condoning McLuhan’s Fordham contract—it’s a Catholic college, and there’s a constitutional ban on state aid to religious schools—it’s PAGE ONE material in The Times (column six, on the 7th of September). Eventually, Fordham holds onto its academic acquisition by paying McLuhan’s $100,ooo Schweitzer Chair salary itself.
The Times piece proves McLuhan’s continued high-recognition factor by mentioning his name in this article’s title and profusely in the opening paragraphs without feeling the need to explain who he is or what he’s done until paragraph number 25. But then the NYT-wits return to their normal game of cutting McLuhan down to size. The subheading of the biographical section of the story is “MEANINGS NOT ALWAYS CLEAR.” The piece concludes with inferred doubts as to McLuhan’s clarity and influence. He may be page one, but he’s clearly not Sage One.
MCLUHAN GETS TAKEN, SERIOUSLY
With the mass media generating more interest in McLuhan’s medium (his approach, his style, his persona) than his message (“the new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village,” etc.), attacks against the man become more furious and easier to launch. The British remain staunchly smug, with September 1st’s New Statesman (page 253) sending Malcolm Muggeridge into the fray to caustically announce that “The Medium is McLuhan” and to challenge several of the vague analogies and historical inaccuracies contained in Understanding Media. Muggeridge, after mucking about maliciously for a page and a half, concludes:
Useless, actually, to raise such points. McLuhan just listens with kind of half-smile. Visual vapourings, he seems to be saying. My head was full of queries.
Slicing deeper with his cutting remarks, Muggeridge takes a stab at explaining the vast appeal of McLuhan’s theories. He again refuses steadfastly to give any scholarly bearing to any part of of them, however.
It’s not difficult to see why his propositions appeal, especially to the young. In the first place, they imply that we are living in uniquely extraordinary times. History went meandering along for centuries, barely registering any change; but now, man! It’s swinging.
CAN FORDHAM AFFORD ‘IM?
September 19. Have you read The Times today? Pretty predictable:
MCLUHAN’S MESSAGE LEAVES NEW CLASS PERPLEXED
But Fordham Teacher Says Students Were “Turned On” at His Debut
(Story by John Leo, page 34 column 4)… and that’s the news.
Across the Atlantic, The New Statesman is delving “Into McLuhan’s Maelstrom” with Tom Nairn (Sept. 22, page 362) albeit this time with a bit of sympathy:
There is little point in sneering at the PR slickness of the cult, or the vested interests that have made McLuhan No. 1 speaker on the U.S. after-dinner circuit: such success is only possible because of the genuine wide appeal of his ideas. There is little point, either, in an academic textual approach to books which notoriously are composed in deliberate defiance of scholarly values, by an author who thinks that jokes and puns are a better form of communication than long-faced “serious” analysis.
Nairn seems to be consciously countering the recent ravings of Muggeridge. The British press is really getting into the act now, the critical forum now as involved and divided in opinion as their colonial counterparts.
October opens with a jab from the humor magazine Punch, delivered by Kenneth Allsop, who reviews McLuhan’s media (w)rites en masse and prefaces his pontifications with:
Howdy neighbor, how’re things over in your corner of the global village? Wife and audio-tactile kids okay? ‘Round our neck of the woods hog-prices are good and so’s the compressional implosion, by cracky. Well, be with you in tonight’s hoedown, or media participation in configurational awareness—that’s the homy way us folks put it.
The Spectator (October 13), similarly disposed to ridicule, prints a six-line poem by Christopher Hollis:
Marshall McLuhan proclaims the Death of Writing.
He’s written a book
To prove the proposition.
His publishers are eagerly inviting
Readers to subscribe to its
The same issue of The Spectator features a casual dismissal of McLuhan from none other than Anthony Burgess. The Clockwork Orange novelist outdoes himself with his article’s clever title (all McLuhan critics, it seems, must think up a clever title to be seriously considered as challengers of the oracle’s patented punning verbosity) is
“The Modicum is The Messuage,” and no, he offers no apology for it:
McLuhan will, if he goes on as he is going on, be forced to use it himself sooner or later. A messuage is legally defined as a house with outbuildings and garden. Professor McLuhan has created a very commodious messuage, productive of a most satisfactory rent, with a modicum of raw material. Good luck to him.
On October 20th, it is announced that Marshall McLuhan has been awarded the $15,000 Molson Prize from the Canada Council for the Encouragement of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. The scroll which accompanies the prize identifies McLuhan as “the explorer and interpreter of our age.” He also wins the Carl Einstein Prize, worth $750, from the Society of German Art Critics.
A month later, the New Republic magazine is leading us through “The Doors McLuhan Opens,” sidestepping briefly to remind us that however sound his ideas are, the man is obviolusly ego-tripping too heavily to take seriously:
McLuhan is clearly interested in being regarded as a presence, a star, his ego being much more involved with his work than he would like known.
WILL HE SNAP AT DEBATE?
Now a whole book of critical discussion regarding McLuhan appears. McLuhan Hot & Cool (Dial Press, New York) contains mainly pre-1967 sound-offs from Sociology celebrities such as Susan Sontag, Tom Wolfe (“But what if he’s right?”), Jonathan Miller (“He opens doors to chaos”) and Dwight McDonald. The editor, G.E. Stearn, is obviously a great admirer of McLuhan. His collection, though it does contain some token dissent, is predominantly pro-McLuhan and suffers for it. Stearn’s interview with the Media messiah himself, reprinted from an Encounter magazine earlier in the year, concludes the anthology. The questions posed by Stearn have been mysteriously rewritten since the interview’s original appearance, delicately rephrased to allow the interviewer more intelligence and credibility.
The New York Times tests the temperature of Hot and Cool in its Book Review section on November 19. Dudley Young, English professor at Cambridge, does the honors. The Times, they are not a-changin’:
In the concluding section, an interview mostly concerned with his alleged indifference to values, McLuhan answers his critics. It is not a very reassuring performance.
On the present evidence, McLuhan seems to have transcended this mortal coil, and henceforth will fear no evil.
Hot and Cool is no bestseller. The hot parts don’t ignite fiery intellectual debates. The Cool bits don’t break the ice at parties.
Next year (’68), there’ll be another collection, featuring a lot of the McLuhan critics of ’67 whose stuff was published too late to make Hot and Cool—all those Massage reviews, the British discussions of the Medium blitz, even some reactions to Hot and Cool itself. The new book will be McLuhan: Pro and Con, under a different editorship and released through another publisher (Raymond Rosenthal and Funk & Wagnalls respectively). Whereas Hot and Cool was primarily Pro, Pro and Con will be more of a Con job. The tides of the new communications wave are turning, and not in McLuhans’ favor.
RIDING HIS CODE TALES
…but that’s tomorrow. Nineteen-Sixty-Seven’s almost over, and it was a very good year. McLuhan conclusively established his name in the papers, on the tube and in the streets. His detractors, though they were given plenty of ammunition and an easy target, had to aim their potshots very carefully to make an impact. The dents that were made in McLuhan’s ideological armor were unavoidable hazards of his profession. The attention of the journalists many of McLuhan’s sayings into familiar quotations (“medium is the message” and “global village,” indeed, took root in the revised Bartlett’s). Nineteen-Sixty-Seven was the year which finally confirmed McLuhan’s status as media-master of the moment. His book contracts were secure. He would not burn out but fade away.
WILL HE RECOVER OR JUST PULL THROUGH?
We end the year with a human interest twist, a socioliterary soap opera. From The Times:
November 23: MCLUHAN IS HOSPITALIZED
November 25: MCLUHAN TO HAVE SURGERY
November 27: MCLUHAN IN GOOD CONDITION AFTER REMOVAL OF A TUMOR
He had a benign growth near the brain, a slow-growing encapsulated tumor in the cranial area. He got well, but he didn’t get better.
One obvious thing we can ask in retrospect is “What is Marshall McLuhan died on November 26, 1967?” The question may seem crude but it was posed the same year regarding several other celebrities, among them Bob Dylan (motorcycle accident) and Paul McCartney (walrus). If McLuhan had died (and he the opportunity) at the peak of his popularity, the attitude toward his work would have been altered immeasurably. He’d be the Jim Morrison of media philosophers.
But Marshall McLuhan lived to see 1968, during which he appeared in The New York Times only once; and 1969, when he was noteworthy only in the book review section. Most of his 1967 works-in-progress were released in ’69-’70, only to be casually disregarded as novelties or as retreads of Massage—which some admittedly were, though most of the new works were fresh and vital, expanding rather than prolonging McLuhan’s key concepts. He lived long enough to make a cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall in 1977 and basically to to outlive his usefulness. McLuhan died in January, 1981.
Was he just McLuhan after all, or McLuhan Before All?
Is there such a thing as an Understanding Media?
In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.
—Herbert Marshall McLuhan.